Hugh Binning (1627-1653)

Hugh Binning was born at Dalvenan in Ayrshire. His father was a landowner and wealthy enough to give him a liberal education. He entered the University of Glasgow in 1641 at the age of thirteen. A student of exceptional ability, he was taught philosophy by James Dalrymple (subsequently Viscount Stair), and graduate MA ‘with much applause’ in 1646. He then began to study divinity, but when James Dalrymple resigned his post as regent, Binning was strongly encouraged to apply for the position. As was customary at the time, anyone who had ‘a mind to the profession of philosophy’ was invited to make a competitive presentation before the University Senatus. The college masters favored Binning, but the Principal, Dr John Strang, preferred one of the other candidates on grounds of age. When a member of the faculty proposed to resolve the matter by extempore public debate, the alternative candidate withdrew in acknowledgement of his meagre chance against ‘such an able antagonist’. So in November 1646, at the age of only 18, Binning was elected regent in philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Though he had little time to prepare, his lectures were well received, and notable for their sustained attempt to free philosophy in Scotland from the jargon of the schoolmen.

For Binning, philosophy was the servant of theology, but this implies that the two be taught in parallel. He thereby forms an important bridge between the 17th century, when philosophy in Scotland was heavily dominated by Calvinism, and the 18th century when figures such as Francis Hutcheson re-asserted a greater degree of independence between the two and allied philosophy with the developing human sciences.

Binning taught at Glasgow for three years before ordination in the Church of Scotland. He resigned his university position to become minister of the parish of Govan near Glasgow and married at the same time. He continued his philosophical and theological studies, and published a highly regarded Treatise on Christian Love. Binning is said to have played a significant part in an open debate between Presbyterians and independents which took place in the presence of Oliver Cromwell in 1651.

Just two years later, in September 1653, Hugh Binning died of consumption, his infant son subsequently inheriting the Fairly estate in Ayrshire. His Collected Works ran to several editions up into the 19th century.

This biographical note is based on the entry for Binning in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Paul Tomassi, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, who died in September 2005 at the age of 43 after a short illness.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary